How Sir John Timpson's 'upside down' approach could transform Britain's town centres

Sir John Timpson
Sir John Timpson
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Sir John Timpson believes his “Upside Down” approach to management can transform town centres. Deputy Business Editor Greg Wright reports

SOMETIMES you have to turn the world upside down to implement lasting changes.

Just ask Sir John Timpson, who has built up a £300m turnover business by making front-line staff feel valued.

His “Upside Down” approach to management has proved extremely effective. Apart from building a nationwide shoe repair and key cutting chain, he has also helped dozens of ex-offenders take the first steps towards a more settled and productive life.

Sir John was in front of an attentive and appreciative audience when he spoke at the latest meeting of The Skipton & Ripon Enterprise Group (SREG) in the leafy setting of Broughton Hall, near Skipton.

The SREG is full of entrepreneurs who are open to new ideas. Sir John describes himself as a “non-conformist businessman” who places his faith in people. Sir John’s message to his 70-strong Yorkshire audience was all about the importance of “trusting your people”.

“Management is about giving freedom to the team and looking after your people,’’ he said.

Under the “upside down management structure” front line staff effectively run the business.

Sir John’s career underlines the value of trusting your instincts and not following the crowd. His CV bears the hallmarks of an independent thinker.

Thirty six years ago, Sir John led a £42m management buyout of his current company, which had become part of the Hanson Trust.

In 1987 he sold the company’s shoe shops to rival retailer George Oliver and concentrated on building up the shoe repairing and key cutting business, which he has diversified into engraving, watch repairs, dry cleaning and photo processing.

In September 1995 Sir John acquired the 120 shop Automagic chain and in April 2003 bought Minit UK which added another 200 shoe repair shops to his empire. Timpson now has more than 2,000 branches nationwide with a turnover of £300m and profits of over £20m. It is a private business wholly owned by Sir John and his family.

A “management maverick”, he has described his business philosophy in books with memorable titles, such as How to Ride a Giraffe, Upside Down Management and Ask John.

He wants all his staff to enjoy the experience of coming to work.

“People have to have the courage to go the way they think is best,’’ he said.

He is passionate about providing former prisoners with the opportunity to transform their lives.

He said: “We have found that the people we have employed straight from prison have been loyal and hard working.”

If you pick the right person they repay your faith by doing a fantastic job, Sir John said.

“We have taken on between 1,300 and 1,400 ex-offenders. We only know of five who went back to prison. We can’t be certain about those who left to work somewhere else,” said Sir John.

Sir John told his Yorkshire audience that he still visits hundreds of the company’s shops a year, despite being in his seventies. He is also finalising plans to provide mental health counsellors to help staff deal with the strains of life outside work.

Sir John believes his business philosophy has wider applications. It could also help to revive our troubled high streets.

Last year, retail industry experts, including Sir John called for a community-focused approach to tackling the challenges facing high streets and town centres.

The Government-appointed panel made up of representatives from the retail, property and design sectors published recommendations to reinvigorate town centres by creating a community hub which would includes leisure and social services and more residential property.

The report puts community involvement and local leadership at the centre of a plan to build the town centres of the future.

Sir John, who was the panel’s chairman, called for an ‘Upside Down Government’ approach which would empower local leaders to implement their plans to reinvent their town centres. They would be supported with expert advice from a Town Centres Task Force and funding from the government’s Future High Streets Fund.

In October last year, the panel provided interim recommendations, which the Government responded to by announcing the creation of a £675m Future High Streets Fund as well as a Town Centre Taskforce to give local leaders support in implementing schemes

When the report was launched, Sir John said: “When the panel was formed, we knew high streets would never be the same again, but we were delighted to discover places where imaginative developments have increased footfall and reduced the number of empty shops.

“By helping our towns create their own individual community hub, I believe we will have vibrant town centres to provide a much-needed place for face-to-face contact in the digital age.

“I have learnt, from my own business, that the best way to get things done is to give people on the front line the freedom to get on with the job in the way they know best.

“We are applying the same Upside Down Government principle to the development of our town centres, with our Town Centre Task Force there to mentor, encourage and clear any obstacles out of the way while giving the clear message to inspirational local leaders that they are free to turn their plans into reality.”

Sir John believes local initiative is an essential ingredient for success.

He argues that local teams, which include businesses and community groups from each town, must discover a central purpose.

Speaking after his trip to meet the members of the SREG, Sir John said he wanted to see “local communities led by inspired leaders who can re-imagine the centre of the town.”

He is worried that future generations may have plenty of virtual friends “but never meet a human soul”.

He added: “The centre of town is a true meeting place.

“Human beings need human contact.”